The Little Mermaid’s voice is actually her penis. Urusula isn’t entirely a villain. Eric is a chaser. Triton is a fucking
daddy asshole. Strong statements, for sure. But I want you to know what you’re getting into. If the Little Mermaid is sacred to you, and hearing this trans woman’s interpretation of the movie’s allegory is going to destroy your childhood, well, bye bitch. If you’re curious what the fuck I mean, then have a seat. Let me tell you about why I watched this movie once a week at Grandma’s house when I was a wee child.
Others have written before about Ariel’s journey mirroring the trans feminine experience, but I want to write my own take. I’ll talk about the trans symbolism in the film and I’ll also assert a second layer of meaning: that Ariel’s voice is a stand-in for the trans feminine penis. (Insert Mouthfeel GIF here). Why, you ask? It’s the first trait that defines Ariel as a character, she must give it up to achieve her desired form, and it’s the essential feature that distinguishes her from other women by her suitor.
The film is framed from a male perspective, with the hegemonic men in the film being featured before the titular little mermaid is even seen on screen, and given the power to complete Ariel’s transformation. After a brief opening sequence, we are introduced to Sebastian and King Triton, with a song performed by the ruler’s daughters. The ending results in a would-be reveal of Ariel, who is described as having a “voice like a bell.” Her sisters open the clam-shell, and — what a letdown! Ariel is missing! In this manner, she’s shown as deviant and resistant to the role and social expectations of her position, something with which her sisters easily comply.
Absent from the concert, she explores the ruins of a shipwreck, hunting for artifacts from human civilization. She is fearless, if a bit naïve, while her sidekick Flounder consistently reminds her of the anxiety of the moment. Ariel is unphased; the euphoria of the experience gives her confidence. I personally went through a similar period of naivete before I committed to transition. I knew I wanted to live my life as a woman, and I thought “Hey, maybe I could just get a job back east and show up on the first day and no one would know better.” Yeah, glad I didn’t do that because it would have been fucking terrible and I’d probably be dead.
The shark that comes after Ariel is a manifestation of the oppressive violence trans women face. (Disproportionately trans women of color, but you get the point.) She carries with her a purse to return home with her finds, a clever play on the common name of the egg sack of sharks. In several tense moments, the purse holds her back, preventing her from escaping quickly and leaving her in harms way. In this manner, the purse symbolizes the sometimes-burden of trans identity, filled with transgression, leaving the bearer vulnerable to harm. She refuses to leave it behind because of course — the transgression was the point of the outing. Sure, it’s scary to live one’s life surrounded by threats of violence, but what’s a girl to do?!
Shortly after her return, we see the first evidence of this ongoing conflict between Ariel and her father. Triton demands that she stay below the surface, showing a moral absolutism about human-mermaid interaction. “You could have been seen,” he says, raising his voice, saying she must never return to the surface. Perhaps well-meaning, and genuinely concerned about his daughter’s safety, Triton is still expecting Ariel to tolerate her internal strife, to forget these feelings and move on.
Ariel storms away from this cruel interaction with her father, seeking shelter amongst her collection of human artifacts. She sings of her emptiness, admitting that “she’s got everything” (read: male privilege) and yet, there is a consistent force within her driving her toward a different life. She admits that there is no price she’s unwilling to pay in order to achieve her desire. For many of us, this feels toooooootally relatable; there is no price too high, literal or figurative, for transition, even though it is risky and expensive. Facing the unknown is always a challenge, and if we could ignore it, we might. But for most of us, it is not ignorable. The more we suppress the feelings, the more likely they are to return (and stronger, at least in my experience). I can’t tell you how many times I gave away all of my cross-gender items, only to start a new collection months (or weeks, in some cases) later.
Patriarchal attempts to influence Ariel fail. Sebastian recognizes Ariel’s longing and tries to convince her not to follow through. He sings to her an upbeat song, encouraging her to ignore her need, reinforcing the privilege of staying “under the sea.” He speaks of the violence of the human world, highlighting the risks to her status and safety if she were to move forward with her plan to align with her internal vision of herself. Shortly after, Triton enters her grotto, seeing Ariel flirting with a statue of Eric (more on him later), sending him into a rage, destroying everything in sight. This moment is akin to a trans person caught in the act of gender transgression, resulting in severe emotional (if not physical) abuse. When parents express such violent feelings toward their child, they imply that love is conditional—they must adhere to their pre-ordained, non-consensual gender identity to keep their love. Ariel is not convinced, finding her longing overpowers any fear these men try to impart on her. She chooses joy over fear. That’s my girl!
She seeks the care of Ursula, the sea witch, who in this interpretation is not clearly a villain, more of a complicated supporter. She gets it. She says clearly what Ariel’s problem is and how to solve it. In my view, Ursula is a stand-in for the early medical establishment treating trans women. Even a decade after the making of the film, trans women seeking medical treatment for their condition were forced to undergo arduous and painful steps, including leaving their former lives behind, starting a new life in their new gender identity without the support of any sort of medical interventions, maintaining a strictly heterosexual orientation, undergoing all gender confirmation surgeries, and fulfilling specific gender role expectations. All of these were arbitrated by the doctors themselves, who often questioned the motives of trans patients, enforcing strict binary gender upon them.
Ursula sings of these “poor unfortunate souls” under her care (in the best fucking song in the whole movie) all having varying needs and desires met, but at great cost. Clearly, the odds are against her patient’s success, and many did not achieve the desired result. The same was true for trans women seeking treatment at the time, many of whom were left without psychological and hormonal support.
Nowadays, medical treatment for trans patients is more of a class, racial, and economic struggle. Access to health care, variable coverage and costs, and proximity to medical treatment providers, and general mistreatment by practitioners are a major obstacle for many seeking medical treatment. As an aside, this is not the only way to transition; social transition is a totally viable option. But many of us desire medical treatment, it’s just not widely accessible for all who want it. Even when treatment is covered, it can be extremely expensive. Bottom surgery alone is often more than a base model Toyota Camry. Given the employment struggles and lack of traditional support networks from families many trans people face, well, you get the picture.
But Ursula is willing to work with Ariel. She’s the only one who takes her complaints seriously, and the only one who might have a possible solution (that we know of, at least, more on that later). Ursula sets specific requirements for her patient reminiscent of the burdens placed on trans patients: she will never see her family again, she has to get a dude to kiss her to validate her identity, and she’s got to give up her most prized asset in order to make it happen. These demands are difficult to consider, and she is apprehensive. But clearly, the pain made it worth the sacrifice. So, she signs the scroll. Ursula makes the change Ariel desperately seeks, and then sends her off to fend for herself in this unfamiliar world.
What. About. The penis!
Ariel surfaces and we skip over to Eric, who is going on and on about the voice he heard when Ariel saved him from the shipwreck. In this interpretation, Eric is a trans attracted man, pejoratively referred to as “tranny chasers.” I abhor this phrase. I find it very harmful for all involved. Men who love women who have dicks should not be ostracized. As trans scholar and biologist Julia Serrano notes, we don’t call men attracted to big breasts “titty chasers” or men who like big butts “booty chasers.” Sure, maybe this is an “unconventionally” feminine feature to be interested in, but it is attached to a woman. YouTuber Natalie Wynn explains this in depth, but when a trans woman is on hormones, her penis does not does not look or function the same way as a masculine penis. The feminine penis is softer. It shrinks a bit. Our orgasms are different. Our ejaculate is different. Less than a quarter of us can get hard enough for penetration (which most of us aren’t really interested in anyway, but it’s cool if you are! No judgment. It’s just a body part, use it to get pleasure however you want.). It’s just a totally different thing.
But this label leads to a lot of shame for everyone involved. I’ve seen it countless times online. Some of us assume that anyone attracted to us must be a chaser, and therefore, we’re just a fetish object to them. Which, yeah, that’s not cool if you don’t consent to it or want that for yourself. It also leads men who might otherwise be interested in dating trans women to avoid us like the plague because god forbid they’re seen as being into “that sort of thing.” In some cases, men will go so far as kill us because they’re so afraid of their friends finding out about their interest, they must expunge us from the world to cure them of the transgression. We can complain about having our bodies fetishized, we can complain about men denying our consent and demanding we use our bodies to perform acts we’re not interested in, and certainly none of us deserve violence, but I don’t think it’s fair to label men who are attracted to trans women as chasers. Like, who the fuck is that helping?
Back to the Little Mermaid.
The women in laundry yard speak of how there are plenty of available girls. What’s so “special” about this one, seemingly suspicious of Eric’s motivations. They sense something different about her, and this woman feels Ariel is unworthy of Eric’s affection. This is the question many people who date trans women get — the curiosity about the body parts, rather than the person’s characteristics. There is an implication, that trans women are less than, or at least have very essential differences between them and cis women. Which, yeah, we come to womanhood differently, but we’re all still women. Does it really matter how we have sex or what our parts look like? Not to mention, many of us buy that Camry and get a neo-vagina. Reducing womanhood to having a natural-born pussy is disgusting, akin to thinking of women as breeding mares, if you ask me.
Ariel is a bit different, though, because this is her first foray into human life. This is representative of what many of us experience early in our transitions. We must “demystify” womanhood, figuring out how to behave in ways that will allow us to be seen as the women we are. The irony is that this is exactly what cis girls do during puberty, and society shows as much contempt for teenage girls as they do toward trans women. It’s all rooted in misogyny. This is the double-bind of trans feminine life, and womanhood generally. If we are hyper-feminine, we are caricatures. If we are too masculine, we’re “men in dresses” and our womanhood is revoked. I feel for Ariel when she combs her hair with her fork. Been there girl! Eventually we figure out the right balance, the elements of femininity that feel authentic, jettisoning those that feel put upon. But ugh, it’s so painful at first.
Shortly after, Ursula uses Ariel’s voice to dickmatize Eric into marrying him. This cements Eric’s status as a trans attracted male, if we ignore the magical plot elements. After the seashell holding Ariel’s voice is destroyed and Ariel regains her special trait, Eric loses the trance and reunites with his love. The sun sets, Ariel returns to mermaid form, and is thrown under the sea. Setting aside the trans attraction theme, this is the moment of outing. There are many of us that choose to go stealth – to not share our trans status and live our lives as women, trying to leave the past behind. Many see this as dishonest, but it’s more about the pain of being misgendered. You’d be surprised how often when someone who doesn’t know you’re trans finds out, suddenly you’re a man. It sucks, because the further we get from that person, the more it hurts to be reminded of all of those lost years. Anyway, Eric is presented with Ariel’s history, her original form, and yet, he still seeks her out. He loves her! Awhhhh.
The next part is kind of crazy and magical, and yeah, I don’t have much analysis other than I loved screaming “you insignificant FOOLS” at the television from ages 4 through 8. (Okay, I still do it!) My grandma reminds me that Ursula was my favorite. Of course!! She has the best song and the best lines, not to mention those eyebrows and the dyke-y haircut. And she was willing to work with a bitch to solve her problems. She’s everything.
I’ll conclude with a word of caution for parents of gender diverse children: Triton is the real villain here. Instead of just listening to his daughter, hearing her desires, and accepting her unconditionally, he punished her. He destroyed her precious artifacts, forced her to make risky choices to achieve alignment, and acted like a complete prick about it. We find out in the last moments of the movie that he could have changed her the WHOLE FUCKING TIME. Instead, he made her go through allllll this bullshit.
Don’t be a Triton, just be a daddy. Love your kids the way they are, listen to what they tell you, and try to respect their decisions. It’s scary to have your kid go out in a world knowing how harsh and cruel it is, but if you’re a jerk about it, you’re definitely not making it any better. If others are harsh, be the safe place and remind them that at home, they can be themselves and embrace them. Love them. Cherish them.
And that, my friends, is why the Little Mermaid was my favorite movie since childhood.